DIVORCED homeowners wrangling with the task of removing a former spouse’s name from the mortgage after buying out his or her equity stake in the marital house may think that refinancing is the only choice.
There is another, little-known option that can avoid refinancing and its costs, which generally run 3 to 6 percent of the outstanding loan principal, according to LendingTree. You simply ask your lender to remove the former spouse’s name, leaving the loan note in your name only.
The problem is that not all lenders or mortgage servicers offer this option, known as release of liability. The lenders and servicers that do will most likely run a separate credit check on you — requiring, for example, that you meet minimum credit scores (typically from Fannie Mae, the giant government buyer of loans), and ensuring that you are current with the monthly mortgage payments. They may also require that any investors in the loan, after it is sold off, agree to the deal.
And if you are “under water,” and owe more on the mortgage than the home is currently worth, this process is not an option.
“This is a common and often messy business,” said Jack Guttentag, a mortgage expert and emeritus finance professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “Lenders seldom have a reason to take a co-borrower’s name off the note.”
But, he added, if a homeowner can prove that he or she can afford the payments and meet the required credit criteria — typically those of the investor in the loan — then release of liability may work.
Neil B. Garfinkel, a real estate and banking lawyer at Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson in New York, says the lender “will require the borrower to prove that the borrower is able to support the monthly payments without the co-borrower spouse,” typically through monthly bank statements, annual tax returns and investment statements.
Having the name removed protects the credit of both parties, actually. If the former spouse failed to pay other debts, a lien could be placed on the home, and if you were delinquent on the mortgage payments, your former spouse’s credit could be hurt.
Most divorce settlements stipulate one of two outcomes for marital property. Either the house must be sold, or the person wanting to keep the property must buy out the other’s share, usually within months of the date of the settlement, and get the other party’s name off the mortgage — either through refinancing or a release of liability — typically within a year.
Under the second option, the former spouse signs a quit-claim deed at the divorce settlement, relinquishing his or her claim to the property. But while that action takes the former spouse off the house’s title and leaves it in one name only, it does nothing to remove his or her name from the actual mortgage.
Lenders or servicers typically charge $300 to $1,000 to execute a release of liability and require the property owner to pay an additional, nonrefundable application fee, typically $250 to $500. The process can take from 30 to 90 days, mortgage experts say.
One mortgage servicer, PHH Mortgage of Mount Laurel, N.J., requires that a homeowner with a loan sold to Fannie Mae have a minimum FICO credit score of 620 and a debt-to-income ratio of 50 percent or below (the ratio measures the amount of gross monthly income that goes to paying off all debts).
Still, a lender or servicer “generally has no obligation to release one of the borrowers,” Mr. Garfinkel said.
But Mr. Guttentag says homeowners may have one point of leverage. He suggested that qualified borrowers not accorded the release they seek tell their servicer or lender that unless a release of liability can be executed, the borrower will refinance the mortgage — at another lender.“In such cases,” he said, “the servicer might agree to do it.”
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